The time was 11 P.M.
That was the exact hour that Nico sat next to the boy, the exact moment he fished out the chaptered book from his dark gritty backpack and opened to the bookmark halfway through the pages, eyes scanning the words as quickly as he opened it up. The subway car was packed, people flocking all the seats around Nico, shushing their children and gripping onto the small pulleys on the ceiling. It was loud, with the doors of the car shutting before the metro was set into motion. Nico wished he had his earbuds with him — he had forgotten them at home. Again.
Now he had to listen to the whining of small babies and adolescents, the near-divorce of a couple at the end of the train car, and the teenagers whispering dirty talk from across the asses of people which could never be more flat. He hated taking the subway.
He flips the page, looking up for a single second just to catch sight of a boy next to him clumsily dropping the earbuds he had been untangling onto the ground. He heard the boy curse, and he made a move to pick his earbuds up when Nico grabbed them first, raising his hand up to offer the fallen item to the boy. “Thanks,” the boy muttered with a small smile, taking up his earbuds with a calloused hand. He couldn’t have been much older than Nico, probably just by a month or more. He had dark skin that shone in the fluorescent lights of the train car, black wispy ringlets that hung around his face, and soft brown eyes. He was wearing orange camo joggers and a Thrasher hoodie. All he had with him was a dark green book bag.
Nico nodded to the gratitude, focusing again at the book in order to stop himself from staring too long. He’s been told by his sister that he observes people a lot. It wasn’t creepy, she said, but he should probably stop if he didn’t want to get caught up in a fight. Still, he could hear the perfect click of the plug to the headphone jack next to him, and felt a surge of jealousy towards the boy. He really needed some music right now. Just some goddamn peace and quiet.
“Where’d you get that book?”
Nico looks up from his novel to the boy, whose face flushes in embarrassment at his sudden outburst. “Sorry, I, uh—”
“It’s fine,” Nico says, cutting him off before the boy’s face could spontaneously combust. “What was the question?” The boy repeated himself. “It’s just some random book I picked out from the library a month ago.”
“Ah,” the boy mutters. “I think I read that a year back. Fahrenheit 451 . Yeah, that was the burning books one. I liked it. Do you like it?”
“Yeah. I don’t really have time to read it, though. It’s been overdue for four weeks. I might as well be owning it now. I’ve been busy with homework.”
“Yeah, same. What kind of homework do you have?”
“Pre-calc, chemistry, basically everything that I don’t understand,” Nico says. “I think I’m getting by on English. Barely.”
“Oh, see, I’m super fucking bad at English,” the boy laughs. “I’m good at math and science though. Been my passion growing up as a kid. I can solve trigonometry in an instant but I still don’t understand what happens in The Metamorphosis .”
“The story where the worker turns into a bug?”
“It was that one? Geez. I hated sophomore year.”
Nico smiles a little. “Me too.” He stops dead in his tracks when his eyes catch a glimpse of the boy’s phone. It’s a pretty old model, maybe a 5s in contrast with Nico’s 8+, but what he cares about is the guy going on iTunes and scrolling through his albums to click on one with the cover of a man smoking a cigarette. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by the Arctic Monkeys. He hasn’t listened to that album since… last week. Nico leans closer to inspect the boy’s music choice. “I like that album.”
The boy grins. “Arctic Monkeys fan?” He only grins more when Nico nods fervently. He raises up the right earbud, the left one already in his ear. “Here. You look like you need a break from those two’s makeout session.” He nods his head towards the teenagers in the seats across, who are literally five bases away from fucking straight-on. The children are having their eyes shielded by their fuming mothers.
Nico doesn’t think when he leans a little closer, allowing the boy to insert the plug into his ear. Nico fixes the bud’s position before the boy hits play. At first, the sound blasts into his ear drums, and he instinctively yanks the cord out. The boy jumps and gives an apologetic smile. “Sorry.” Nico glares at him, though it’s diminished when he sees the boy lower the volume. Nico places the earbud back into his ear, just as The View from the Afternoon begins to play. He already feels his feet tapping against the floor. He loved all of the Arctic Monkeys albums, but this one was one of his top contenders. He finally feels his shoulder relax, the tension on his body loosening until it’s only him and the music. In the screaming ocean of adolescents and fighting elderly, he is at peace.
He locks eyes with the boy next to him for a second. The dude smiles. Nico smiles back. Their feet are tapping at the same rhythm.
When Nico’s stop is announced on the loudspeaker, he gently rips out the earbud from his ear and shoves his book long forgotten into his backpack. “Thanks for the music,” Nico tells the boy.
“Thanks for the company,” the boy replies.
Nico leaves to the tune of Riot Van in his head.
The second time they meet is when Nico finally gets his name.
It’s kind of stupid honestly. To not get the boy’s name just as he left the metro, or not to get it while they were listening to the Arctic Monkeys, or not to even get it when the boy had spoken his first words to him. But Nico couldn’t really care, because he finds a seat unoccupied by the boy once again. Tonight, the same time that Nico had stepped onto the train, he was wearing a green collared short-sleeve over a white t-shirt. His shoes, literal Timberlands, are messied with grime and stains. His earbuds are already plugged in, and his fingers are tapping against his knee. One is propped up to his chest, the other that he is tapping upon is resting on the floor.
Nico immediately maneuvers his way to him and sits next to him. At first, the boy doesn’t noticed, bobbing his head to the music quietly, both buds in his ears. Nico taps him on the shoulder, making the guy take out the ear plug with a hum. “Hi,” Nico says, because he’s bad at initiating conversation.
Luckily, the boy doesn’t mind. He smiles at him once the surprise fades away from his facade. “Hey, look who’s back.” As if knowing what Nico was going to ask, he raises up his right earbud to Nico. He takes it without even speaking, scooting an inch closer to the boy so the cord wouldn’t get too strung. Nico’s eyes go wide when hears an instrumental play, dark and sinister and immediately bringing up a familiarity in Nico’s head.
“Gorillaz? Demon Days ?”
The boy grins. “You bet it, mister. I have all their albums. Got them like, what, a few years back? I always listen to them. Especially this one.”
“It’s one of their best,” Nico agrees. “The best in my opinion.”
The boy hummed. “You right, you right. You have any song in mind or do you just want to listen to this album in order?”
“I haven’t listened to DARE in a while.”
A rewind-like background noise emerges from the bud in Nico’s right, and soon the song begins with a funky type beat. Nico feels the opposite of what he felt that first metro ride, his body filling with a small burst of adrenaline in replacement of the serenity from the Arctic Monkeys. He can’t help but hum the lyrics underneath his tongue, nodding his head to the catchy beat. The boy next to him is full on moving, shoulders swaying side to side as he performs small grooves in his seat. He has a small smile on his face, and Nico can see his lips moving, a soft pitched voice whispering the lyrics to himself. He finds himself staring a little too long, and quickly looks away to focus on other things.
The boy shuffles the music around for a while, switching between Dirty Harry and Last Living Souls , even playing Feel Good Inc. three times per Nico’s request. Nico is hunched over on his back, arms resting on his knees as he taps the rhythm onto the train floor. He’s so caught up in the present euphoria that he almost forgets that his stop is only in a minute or two.
He grabs his bookbag quickly as he stands up, the earbud falling from his ear due to the stringing of tension. It falls into the boy’s lap as Nico begins to maneuver his way through the shortening crowd of the metro towards the open doors. Then, just between the gaping opening, he stops. He turns around to look at the boy with the dark brown irises and raised bushy eyebrows. “I never got your name.”
The boy blinks, as if he never anticipated such a question to be directed at him. “Leo.”
Nico doesn’t know why, but something about that name just felt right to him. It fit just right . “Bye.”
It occurs to him, just as the train doors closes behind him after he finally escapes the small line between the track and the platform, that he had forgotten to tell the boy his own name. Stupid Nico. The boy’s name was his now, but he had left out a vital piece of info on himself for the boy. The lack of a mutual connection from the imbalance doesn’t sit right with Nico. Not at all.
He loses sleep over it that night.
Then the next ride, just a day after, he sees the boy in the same seat. An empty space next to him. An earbud in one ear.
“You never told me your name,” Leo says.
Nico’s face instinctively flushes. “Nico.”
“Nico,” Leo tries on his tongue. “Cool.”
They listen to Clint Eastwood together. It’s a good ride.
On one of their encounters, Leo forgets to bring his headphones.
It’s either that, or he had lost it in the piles of books and papers in his bookbag, fishing through the stacks of white and red in a desperate attempt to find his beloved item. Nico enters the metro just as the boy finishes his third search, groaning in frustration as he slams his backpack down on the subway floor, nearly sending his heavy pile of books onto an unsuspecting man’s foot. Nico sits next to him, Leo lazing over his chair and sighing in defeat.
“You have to be fucking kidding me.”
“Is it the earbuds?”
“How’d you know?”
“It’s a hunch.”
“I think I left them at home. I hope. Or maybe I dropped them at school. Jesus Christ, I just got them a few months ago. This is the worst luck to happen to me. I had like a new album and everything for us. Sorry, man.”
“Actually…” Nico reaches into his black pinned backpack to retrieve a pair of ebony earbuds, attached to his iPhone with a skull case. “I finally remembered to bring these today. Just in case.”
The worry lines and gritted teeth faded away on Loe’s face, settling into a grin of curling lips and a thankful glint in his eyes. Nico likes the look on him. “You absolute bastard.”
“Shut up, I saved you from a boring ass train ride. What do you want to listen to? I have Spotify premium.”
“Of course you do.”
Nico scrunched up his eyebrows. “What do you mean by that?”
“You have an iPhone 8+. You’re wearing like ten piercings on your ear and double the amount of rings. You have a different pair of black Converse everytime you walk on here.” Leo gestured to his belt buckle, in the shape of two G’s meshed together. “You’re wearing a Gucci belt for God’s sake. That is like the opposite of whatever funds I managed to salvage from the gutter.”
Nico frowned. “The belt’s nice.”
“Oh yeah, it’s hella nice. But you’re hella rich, don’t bother denying it.”
“Is your family poor?”
“Nah. More like getting by. I work a part-time and I don’t want to use my moms’ money so here I am. Don’t worry too much about it though.”
“Okay.” Nico held up his phone. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
Leo pondered in thought for a few moments. He brought a hand to his chin in fake thought, humming mockingly and making Nico snort slightly. Leo slightly glanced at him before looking up again at the ceiling, wondering what to listen to in such a comedic manner. There was a specific look on his facade whenever he began to think through ideas, as if he were a scholar searching for a needle in a haystack of wonder. His eyebrows would furrow together, his lips would form a small pout, and his eyes would narrow until Nico could see the thoughts flicker across the brown. Leo was thinking for a mere minute yet it felt like an eternity.
“Cage the Elephant sounds like a good one right now.” It’s as if the universe said they were destined to sit next to each other.
Nico opens the Spotify app and scrolls down until he sees the Tell Me I’m Pretty album. He offers his left earbud to Leo, who scoots closer until their shoulders softly press against the other. Leo smells like cinnamon. Nico doesn’t know why he thinks that. It’s merely an observation. Leo takes the earbud and places it in his ear, yet he doesn’t move away when Nico presses play. Cry Baby begins to play. It’s the opposite of what Nico feels in that moment. He doesn’t feel like crying. Now that he thinks of it, he hasn’t felt like crying these past several weeks. That’s a start from the chaotic highway of his life.
Over the loudspeaker, Nico’s destination is announced. He’s almost reluctant to leave, but Leo pulls out the earbud and hands it back to him. “Thanks for the music.”
“Thanks for the company,” Nico jokes. The song is still playing on his end. Too Late to Say Goodbye . It was false. He thought it was too early to say goodbye. But he exits the metro, and through the open doors, he watches Leo cross his arms and sigh in exhaustion. He notices that there are dark circles beneath his eyes. Nico doesn’t think he has the right to be worried about Leo. He’s a stranger, isn’t he? Is he actually worried? Why? His questions are cut off my the loud screech of the train, and the doors close in front of him. He watches Leo leave into that dark tunnel, the lights fading until there is nothing but black. Nico exhales, a hitched breath he never knew he had been holding the entire ride.
He walks through the streets of New York with a hand on his bag and the song playing in his ear. The left earbud is left unused.
Leo becomes less than a stranger with every ride.
While they listen to Tool and Foster the People, Leo tells him a few things that Nico remembers somehow while the music blasts in a single ear. His full name is Leo Valdez. He’s Nico’s age, he transferred to a STEM school in sophomore year, he likes DC Comics more than Marvel Comics (a fact that Nico agrees wholeheartedly with). He has a weird addiction to Altoids. His favorite color is red but he wears orange all the time. He’s adopted, he lives in Queens, he rides the metro to and from the concurrent classes he takes after a school day. He likes Waffle House. He hates airplanes. He’s thinking of becoming a mechanical engineer when he grows up. He listens to audiobooks a lot. If he could have any superpower, he said that technokinesis would be cool.
Even after the buttload of info Leo had given him, that’s not all that Nico has gleaned from Leo’s personality. He’s loud involuntarily, his voice rising out of his own accord that often gets him shushed by passerby. When he’s embarrassed, his cheeks flare up and he rubs the back of his neck in awkwardness and his eyes bore holes into the metro train floor. Tapping is a second nature for him. His feet tap out rhythms on the floor, his fingers tap out beats on his jeans, he likes humming and swaying back and forth with the music they share together. Sometimes Nico can’t get his attention because he’s so caught up in his own thoughts, too focused or too convoluted within the spaces of his head. He still smells like cinnamon. Nico wonders if he works part-time at a bakery.
Within the months that they have been talking, Nico begins to know a lot about Leo Valdez. Alternative music was his comfort. He likes Crayola markers and Tropical Capri Sun. He wears loose and comfortable clothes. And he likes sitting next to Nico. That was what he said. And Nico holds him to his word.
It’s no surprise that Nico starts to talk about himself as well.
During winter break, Leo lays his head on Nico’s shoulder.
It happens suddenly. Nico was heading back home from hanging out with some of his classmates that day, while Leo had just taken his college class which extended from autumn to spring. They had begun to alternate between using each other’s music storage, since Leo had a few albums that Spotify Premium hadn’t gotten its hands on just yet. At the current moment, a white earbud in Nico’s ear was playing Is This It? by The Strokes, the left one shared with none other than Leo Valdez. Nico remembers that he looked more exhausted than usual, eyes dreary with the dark circles beneath them grittier than before. He’s wearing a red flannel over a Nirvana T-Shirt. Nico should have played a Nirvana song in order to keep the boy from falling asleep out of nowhere.
A pressure is created on Nico’s shoulder, waking the boy from a music-induced stupor. His eyes drag to Leo, whose eyes are closed and whose wild hair is all that Nico could see if he sat upright and looked straight down at the smaller. He hears Leo’s low breathing, gradually slowing down until he’s basically taking a whole ass nap on Nico’s shoulder. Nico forgets how to move for a single moment. He can’t even breathe in his lungs, constricted with his hitched breath.
He can’t push Leo from his shoulder. That would be rude, to wake him up in such an act of cold cruelty. He can’t just let Leo sleep, though. Nico’s stop would approach in around ten or more minutes, and he really needs to get home before his father gets suspicious of… whatever he’s doing. People are staring. But he also knows that Leo gets off at the last stop for the train, and that Nico can just take another route to get to his house. And the people don’t really care about anything other than themselves. The thoughts swirl around his head, an internal debate erupting just by the mere action of Leo laying his head on Nico’s shoulder. Today, his scent is not of cinnamon but of sweet mocha. He’s light on his shoulder, so feather-like and so peaceful that Nico feels as if waking Leo up would be a crime.
So he doesn’t.
Nico lets Leo sleep on him, ignoring the loudspeaker indicating that his stop had come up. The doors swing open, but Nico refuses to get up, too afraid to wake the boy from his slumber and honestly sort of liking how the space between them is practically non-existent. Leo looked like he needed a shoulder to rest on. It’s seen by how his eyes are closed in a tranquil shut and his snores are soft and barely audible. The doors close, and Nico watched the platform he always steps out on fall out of view.
The album was back at the beginning by the time that Leo’s stop came. Nico didn’t want to change the music. The earbud was still plugged into Leo’s ear, and God forbid that Nico would meddle with something that brought Leo peace. It was near midnight when the train was beginning to slow down at the Queens platform, so Nico willed up the strength to gently shake Leo from his slumber. Leo groggily opens his eyes, and Nico feels his heart skip a beat at the sleepy Leo, with droopy lids and a quiet whine.
“Hey, it’s your stop,” Nico says. Leo blinks at him in confuddlement, as if not sure that Nico was really there.
“Nico?” he mumbles. “What are you—?”
The doors open, and the remaining passengers step off. Nico knows better than to let Leo pass his curfew like he so recklessly did, so he takes him by the hands and hauls him up to get the two of them off the train. They reach the platform, surprisingly less grungy than the platform by Nico’s city home, and Leo is trying to stand upright after his half hour long nap. Nico provides him support until the boy’s eyes have become accustomed to the fluorescent lights of the platform and the noise of the train pulling away. Leo seems to not remember anything, so Nico tells him what had happened — surprisingly without dying of embarrassment.
“You stayed on for me?” Leo inquired, genuinely shocked by Nico’s recap.
“I couldn’t let you sleep overnight on the train,” Nico tells him. “Are you feeling better now? I could walk you home.”
“Nah, man, it’s cool. I’ve already made you late on your way home.”
“I don’t mind. Why were you so tired?”
Leo laughs tiredly. “School, man. Not feeling my best today. How are you getting home?”
Nico looks to the tunnel on the opposite side of the tracks that they had both come from, a white light and thunderous noise booming down the darkness. “I’ll just take a small detour. Shouldn’t take long. Not many passengers.”
“If you say so.” Leo bundles his flannel over his shirt more to compensate for the chilling cold of the metro station. “Thank you, man.”
“It’s nothing.” It’s something.
Leo tucks his phone into his flannel pocket and begins to walk away just as the metro opposite direction of the frequent one they use pulls up by Nico’s side. The right earbud is dangling by his hip. Nico watches him go, so long that he almost forgets that he has a train to catch. But he can’t shake the feeling of a light pressure on his shoulder.
He doesn’t want to either.
Nico starts riding the metro til Leo’s stop. He just can’t seem to leave him alone.
On one particular night, Nico is in a bad mood.
He doesn’t know what started it. Maybe it was his driving lessons in the morning, where his frustration at himself and his emotionless teacher caused him to run a red light and nearly have his driving permit stripped away from him. Maybe it was his lunch from some random shop that caused him to throw up three times in quick succession, the pasta in it probably shredded human feces. Maybe he just woke up on the wrong side of the bed and knew, as he opened his groggy eyes, that today was just not a good day for him. So when he had sat down next to Leo on the metro that they took pretty much every single day of the week, he was damn near close to tears.
“You okay, man?” Leo asks him, frowning at his reddened retinas and his clenched fists. Nico doesn’t answer, knowing that if he opened his mouth even for a second, he would probably hiss out something that he would regret for the rest of his life. He knows better than to hurt Leo’s feelings with his overwhelming misery, so he crosses his arms and looks away. Not too far to look as if he was ignoring Leo, but just enough to display that he did not wish to talk in that span of a moment.
Leo, surprisingly, takes kindly to this. He doesn’t say a word when he plugs in his abalone earbuds into his 5s, handing one of the buds to Nico who takes it without a second thought. He starts playing some soft Blink-182 songs. Nico tries not to fall surrender to the sad melody for fear that he would have a breakdown right in front of someone that he’s pretty sure is friends with.
Nico sniffles and furiously wipes at his eyes, allowing the music to fill his head until there is nothing left when Leo suddenly holds up a container, a plastic box with something wrapped in tin foil within it. Within the fingers holding up the box is a fork wrapped up in a clean napkin. “I made the recipe today for a few of my friends at my engineering class. I think you’d like it. It always brings up my spirits.”
“What is it?” Nico asks.
“Flan,” Leo tells him. “Go on. Unless you’re not hungry.”
Even after regurgitating his entire innards that fateful lunch, Nico takes up the small container and utensil with skeptical eyes. He didn’t know if Leo could cook, or even if he cooked the dish at all. But when he removed the lid and ripped open the tin foil, he felt his mouth water at the sight of a cake-like snack, honey brown and doused in gold. He immediately unwraps the fork and slices a piece of. He looks to Leo to see if he is okay with eating his last meal of the day.
“Go for it,” is all Leo says.
The taste is heavenly. Nico hums in pleasure at the flavor, quickly digging the fork in the flan and taking several bites out of the artistry. It tasted like what his stepmother cooked once in spring, except with more honey warmth and a little aftertaste of perfect sugar. Nico near finishes the whole thing, the only thing stopping him from absolutely demolishing the masterpiece of food being the boy next to him, who is trying not to laugh at Nico eating like a rabid wolf.
“I’m sorry,” Nico mumbles through an open mouth. A piece nearly falls from his lips — which would have been so embarrassing — and he quickly gobbles it back in just before it reaches open air.
Leo gives a small giggle. It stirs butterflies in Nico’s stomach. “It’s no problem, seriously. Bad day?”
“You have no idea,” Nico told him.
“I kinda do. I accidentally turned in a manga copy of Neon Genesis Evangelion instead of my engineering notebook once. I know a few things about unlucky days.”
“Hm,” Nico mumbles. He takes a single bite before offering the container to Leo, trying for a determined face. “Eat the rest. I can’t let you go hungry.”
“Dude, it’s fine—”
Leo sighs. “Okay, okay. Fine. But only because you say so.” He chomps down on the remaining flan with a smile on his face, less feral than Nico’s own eating manners, shutting the lid closed and placing everything in his backpack. Then he stretches, bellowing out a yawn that permeates through the decreasing population of the train car, his entire body stretching out before relaxing into a slump on the chair.
“Are you going to fall asleep again?” Nico asks.
“No…” Leo mumbles. “I’m trying to stay awake this time.”
“You don’t have to.”
The two of them lock eyes for a moment. Leo smells like fresh berries. Nico needs to stop commentating on what Leo smells like.
“How long you staying on the train?” Leo questions.
“I’m seeing you home. Can’t have you falling asleep again.”
“That was one time.”
“That was the first time. You did it again thrice.”
“Whatever,” Leo scoffs. He adjusts the earbud in his ear, brushing a stray curl from his face that near immediately falls back to its original position, causing Leo to fume for just a second. Nico’s internal self has the audacity to laugh.
Leo’s stop comes way too soon, and the music in Nico’s head ceases to play. “Get better soon, alright?” Leo orders when they’re both off the train, Nico preparing himself for the ride back home. Nico can’t help but smile at the small gesture.
Leo brings food to the train a lot.
First are the muffins. Then come the brownies. After are the hot tamales and the tostadas. He has a ton of food, all made by himself alone or in collaboration with his family and friends. He always has enough for Nico, the boy notices. He always has the same container, and he always hands it to Nico when the latter is feeling the need to save himself from the uncontrollable hunger. He always has enough for Nico.
Yet the boy is skinny. Nico doesn’t know why that bothers him a lot.
Sometimes Nico doesn’t see Leo on the train. It’s understandable. Sometimes Leo is sick. Sometimes Leo is doing some project at school with his classmates or he’s writing up a report in his room. Sometimes he takes up after-hours at his part times, other times he has somewhere else to be. Nico doesn’t mind when Leo doesn’t show up all the time. He’s had a few sick days and a few rest days and a few busy days. He’s probably less seen by Leo than Leo is seen by him. Still, it doesn’t shake the alien feeling that comes forth whenever he notices the empty space beside him. Loneliness, Nico realizes. He’s lonely every time Leo isn’t on the train with him.
A few passengers take the seat by him. Nico has to push down the need to say that it’s occupied. You can’t have an assigned seat on the subway.
But Nico knows that seat is Leo’s.
Leo’s gone for two days in a row. Nico tries not to think much of it.
He’s gone for a week. He’s been worried since the third night.
Nico told the old lady that the seat next to him was taken. He told the man in the tuxedo and fancy briefcase that it was occupied. The only person who sat in the chair for even a second was a young blonde girl with pigtails and freckles of M&Ms, who didn’t speak for fear that Nico would steal her voice away. Mostly, it remained unoccupied. Empty gray, devoid of character, and quiet. Utterly useless.
Nico listens to The Wombats the tenth night. He’s waiting for someone to pick up the other earbud.
Two weeks. Three weeks go by. Leo still hasn’t gotten on the train.
Sometimes Nico thinks of taking the bus or the taxi to his house. But there’s a voice in the back of his mind. He’ll be there. He’ll be on the train. So he gets on the train. Leo isn’t there to greet him.
Nico realizes he never got Leo’s number. Stupid Nico.
He starts to leave at his stop now. It doesn’t feel right.
It’s getting lonely.
Nico misses Leo. He realizes that on the fourth week of Leo’s sudden disappearance. He misses him. It’s like something poked a hole in the canteen of the world. Ripped a hole in space and time. Tore something away from Nico. Something is missing, and that something is someone, and that someone is Leo. Nico listens to Pink Floyd and Gorillaz alone, the earbud on his right ear playing at half volume. His left ear is subject to the chatter of people, the smacking of lips and the sobbing of children. To the crunching of chips to the sips of water. All this noise, this meaningless and stupid noise, is nothing to him. He only cares about the cold. And the empty space.
Nico prays for the first time in his life. He collapses on his bed and prays. He hopes that Leo’s okay.
“There he is.”
Nico thinks he stops breathing for a split second. Suddenly blossoms are sprouting in his chest, the air he had held for an entire month finally leaving his aching lungs, his hands falling slack and his mouth pulled open in a soft gesture of awe. Someone is sitting in the seat. Someone with dark umber skin covered in beauty marks, wrists wrapped in beaded bracelets and chain hoops, with mustard yellow corduroy pants and a patterned orange shirt and a bandana of green. Someone with soft honey irises and a small smile and a pretty face that Nico can never seem to get out of his head. A book bag is laying at his feet, his checkered Vans tapping a rhythm against the floor of the train. He has a single earbud in.
“Where did you go?” Nico asks him after the train doors close and he makes his way over, refusing to sit down and instead opting to stand over the boy with dark wildfire hair and dimples on each cheek. He needs to make sure he isn’t hallucinating, because if he was, he was going to have to pay the angels above a little visit that involved twenty daggers and a longsword.
“Aw, you missed me?” Leo jokes.
“Yeah,” Nico says.
“Oh.” Leo seems speechless, a blush blooming across cheeks that tint perfectly. He looked older, yet he doesn’t. Nico doesn’t even know how to react to this sudden occurrence that he had been waiting for a month to happen. It was like a bridge was crossed yet the other side was never so far from reach. Leo rubs his neck — a habit — and stares at the floor — another habit. “Legal issues. Got into a custody battle with some past foster parents. Just a lot of shit I’d rather not get into right now. I got stuck at home for a while.”
It was Nico’s turn to go “oh.”
Leo held up the right earplug, one that Nico was so familiar with yet created a wave of nostalgia, as if Leo was not gone for a month but for an entire lifetime. Being with Leo was the equivalent of breathing again. “I bought some albums while I was gone. Care to join?”
“Of course,” Nico says. He sits by his side. The seat next to him is full again, rightly fit by the right person. Nico takes up the abalone earbud and places it in his ear, and when the music begins to play, the noise of the train, the pedestrians, the world fades away into the distance. All he could hear is Do I Wanna Know? and the sound of Leo’s breathing, soft and sweet. He’s tapping again, on a knee that is propped up towards his chest, and he’s lost with the bobbing of his head and the tunes of his soul. Nico wants to take a picture. Artistry can’t go to waste.
Plus, Leo smells like primroses. Nico likes primroses.
There’s something different between them.
It’s not a bad change. How can it be bad when it involves Leo? It’s all the same scenario, the same things they had done before Leo got caught up in that custody battle and disappeared from reality for about a month. They meet on the metro. One of them brings out the sacred ritualistic objects. They listen to music and talk. Leo brings baked goods, Nico brings positive commentary. Nico ignores his stop and guides Leo home. Sometimes Leo falls asleep on his shoulder. Sometimes they’re in a good or decent mood, other times they only come to listen to music and relish in each other’s company. It’s all the same scenario.
But now Nico can’t stop staring at him. At Leo’s dark lashes and passionate smile and soft laughter, at his wily black curls and adoring pink lips. Nico watches Leo and sometimes Leo catches him in the act, and Nico always looks away. It’s as if he’s caught Leo at an indecent time — but Leo never reprimands him. In fact, he says nothing of it. It’s like a regular occurrence when it really shouldn’t be. It’s privacy stripped away, yet it feels as if it’s been long enough to pinpoint that that may not be the case.
Their shoulders are pressed up against each other all the time. They lean towards each other to receive each other’s cord of earplugs. They lock gazes a lot. Nico finds that his hand refuses to stay within the pockets of his jacket, often reaching out and placing it on Leo’s knee when the boy’s jitteriness is represented by the quaking of his legs. He doesn’t do it to cease Leo’s constant fervor, but merely does it because… Nico doesn’t actually know. But Leo doesn’t mind. Sometimes he returns the gesture. Sometimes they’re an inch from interlacing hands. Other times they scoot a half foot away from each other. It’s all new to Nico.
Nico shouldn’t look into it. But he really likes Leo’s company. He really, really likes Leo’s company.
He really, really likes Leo.
He likes Leo.
Oh god, he likes Leo.
Nico’s had crushes all the time before. In middle school, he had teeny tiny ones on the upperclassmen, which faded away as quickly as they erupted. In freshman year, he dated some random dude he thought would be a decent enough boyfriend until he caught him eating a KitKat without breaking it. In a general sense, he doesn’t actually know how a relationship works. He knows how to conceal flushed cheeks and pulsating hearts, but he never learned how to act on his own impulses. He does well in sports. Things like basketball and baseball were easy for him. But he doesn’t understand love. He can’t do love if he doesn’t know how the fuck it works.
So the revelation sort of turns his world upside down. This shouldn’t be something to dwell on for every passing hour of the day. But all Nico can gleam from the situation he is stuck in is that he really, really wants to kiss Leo. Maybe hold hands. Go on dates.
God, Nico really was a dumbass.
“Did you mean it?”
“Did you actually miss me? While I was away?”
“… I missed you too.”
On the night of June, they take the train together.
They sit side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder, their hearts beating a step faster than their usual rates. Nico’s phone is playing something new. A friend had suggested the album to him, and he can’t help but feel a certain way about it — The 1975 by The 1975. It’s a new find, straight out of his comfort zone, yet for some reason he finds himself on the same wavelength with the music. He likes the guitars and basses and the vocals and the lyrics and suddenly all of the songs of the album come together to a wonderfully gorgeous mix. It fits so well with this suburban acropolis of dark tunnels and fluorescent lights. It was a miracle that this album was existing.
Leo looks pretty in the lights. Heart Out was blasting in Nico’s right ear, right where Leo sat, and it fit him so well. The beats and the rhythm and the song itself was so indescribably him and Nico had no idea how he was handling these feelings for so long. He hasn’t had a crush in years . But being next to Leo made him feel giddy, like he was skipping on clouds or whatever bullshit cliche people in love dwelled upon, happier than he thought he could ever be. Leo really made his life all the more durable. God, Nico thinks he might be in love.
“Dude, this slaps,” Leo tells him off-handedly, hitting each beat with a snap of the fingers. He’s wearing a simple white T-shirt under a camo windbreaker, and a small golden chain hangs from his neck. He’s relaxed after finished with his AP testing, finally catching a break that was well-deserved due to the many times he saw Leo in a groggy mood whenever he stepped on. Nico’s been staring at him a lot. Leo never seems to mind. Nico thinks he should probably stop before it becomes an ingrained habit. Then again, it probably already was.
“Yeah, Lou Ellen has taste,” Nico says. “I don’t know why I never checked them out before.”
“Maybe it’s because we always get stuck in the same genre,” Leo laughs. They both ignore the call out of Nico’s regular stop. It’s not really a regular anymore. Nico always sits on the metro until Leo leaves — he doesn’t even remember a time before that habit. It’s just a need to lengthen their time together, a want to become closer even if unintentional. To think this all started because Leo had dropped his earplugs that one fateful day.
The train is less crowded than usual. There’s only an elderly couple within the train car, laying their heads against each other as they watch the lights of the underground tunnels shift through the windows. Seeing such old people still in overwhelming adoration for one another makes Nico’s chest feel light. Love was a strange concept.
The train ceases at Leo’s stop, and Nico feels his gaze drop from the ceiling, waiting for Leo to rise up and for him to follow so they would make their separate ways. But then he notices it. Leo makes no move to get up. The only passengers to leave, the only ones left besides him and Leo, were the elderly couple, who walked out leisurely to the platform of the metro station. Nico nudges Leo, who looks up at Nico with a questionable glance as if Nico was the one oblivious to the destination they were in.
“You’re stop is here.”
“It is?” Leo looks over to the doors, which close before he can even take a look at the signs outside. They’re the only ones in the metro car. “Oh. It’s fine, I’ll just wait for the train to round.”
“We have to wait for another hour. You’re the last stop. We can get off the next station and take a detour.”
“Yeah, but…” Leo drags his sentence until he sighs, stimming with his camo jacket without looking at Nico. The train begins to pull out of the station. “I don’t want to.”
Nico’s chest begins to pound. This is probably the first time they were alone together. Nico had become so accustomed to the noise, to the pedestrians that stood over them hanging onto the ceiling and hauling luggage of large mass, that this entire situation was alien to him. They were truly alone together, here in this small space, and the music is the only thing keeping some semblance of a tether around Nico’s wrist before his heart burst out of his ribcage. He doesn’t know if he’s happy or anxious, only knowing that Leo smells like buttercups that night. Nico might as well plant a garden for Leo.
For several minutes, there is nothing but silence between them. Leo doesn’t get off at the next stop, or the stop after that, or the stop after that. Nico refuses to leave even if he did. No one else enters the train car. The air is holding its breath, and Nico was no different.
“You hungry?” Leo asks.
“No,” Nico replies. “You tired?”
Antichrist begins to play. That’s when Nico pauses the music.
Leo frowns at him. “You good man?”
Nico meets his gaze and fights down the bundle of nerves wracking his ability to form coherent sentences. The train has entered a long tunnel, one that stretched for miles with its changing lights and its dark passageways. Leo is vivid in the darkness up against his back, strobing lights all around them. Nico coughs into his hand in a false attempt to clear his constricting throat, hesitantly staring into Leo’s eyes in order to gain his full attention. Leo has a raised eyebrow and a nervous downturn of lips. “Can I… can I ask you something?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Leo stutters. He doesn’t seem to know where Nico is going with this. Neither does Nico.
“… well…” Great, Nico was struggling already. But he knows that right now is the perfect moment, the perfect time to come out with his feelings in this rare moment of isolation from the world. It’s a time where they both could say anything without the stares or the jabs or the glares of others. For once, they are truly alone, and Nico really wants to do this despite the warning signs of everything going wrong, despite the red flares of his head ringing out of his manual control. “Have you ever… been asked out before…?”
“No, wh…?” Leo’s eyes widen. “O— oh.”
“Yeah,” Nico exhales, already in preparation for the worse. “You’re… really cool. Since I got on the train, I liked you. I like your music taste, your laugh… you’re really pretty too. I don’t even know if you like boys but I just wanted to say that… that…” Nico takes in a huge gulp of breath. “I like you. A lot.”
It’s like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. At least the bastard got it out of his system. At least he was able to come through with something as stupid and childish as this crush. Now all he has to do is brace for Leo’s hatred towards him, unlearn taking the metro and take the bus to and from school, never being able to see Leo ever again for fear of the latter’s retaliation. Or maybe Leo would stay as his friend, which he hopes to be the case, though he’s terrified that nothing would ever go back to how things used to be. But at least he got it out, despite the consequences that he may have caused to weigh on top of his sore limbs. That’s the only thing that matters—
Leo creeps his hand towards his. Their fingers lace together.
“I, uh… I honestly don’t know how relationships work,” Leo says. He’s blushing, Nico realizes, cheeks flushed dark. There’s a spark in his eyes. “I had like a ton of crushes back in middle school and freshman year but you’re… I don’t think I had this much fun talking to someone since like… forever. You’re super cool. Like, I literally can’t speak around you. I uh…” Leo smiles shyly, so unlike the sinister smirks and passionate grins like all his smiles before. “I like you a lot too.”
Nico doesn’t think he can fall any deeper than right now. Leo likes him back. Nico’s pretty sure relationships don’t usually make you feel like you’re in the heavens smoking a pina colada with God, but what did Nico know about love? He feels so alive that he could burst from just the feeling of liking Leo that much.
“So… we’re dating now?” Nico asks. Leo doesn’t seem sure himself.
“I guess?” Leo laughs. “Guess we’re boyfriends now.”
Now Nico understands how being called a boyfriend was the best feeling in the world.
They sit in silence for a few more minutes, looking into each other’s eyes with hearts within the rims of brown and black. There’s no music playing, but Nico doesn’t need music to enjoy this moment. Being with Leo made his world a little brighter than before.
“Can I… can I kiss you?” Nico asks.
Leo ponders the question for a second. “Yeah. That’d be neat.”
Nico kisses him. It’s really clumsy, Nico’s first kiss which could’ve been Leo’s too. Yet the lack of inexperience made Nico feel bubbly, causing him to smile so much that he could barely keep their lips together. The two of them had to stop kissing to make way for small bursts of laughter, hands intertwining with each other as they relished in this soft moment reserved only for the two of them. If this wasn’t perfect, then perfection didn’t exist.
And Nico is sure that The 1975 is playing in another part of the world.